The operations officer for an AC-130 gunship squadron said last week the unit will have to adjust its training profile to operate at Cannon Air Force Base due to the base’s elevation, temperature and air density.
The 16th Special Operations Squadron and its fleet of AC-130 Spectre gunships are in the process of relocating to Cannon from Hurlburt Field as part of the transition to the 27th Special Operations Wing.
“The way we look at these things for aircraft performance is that an aircraft will always perform best the denser the air is,” said Lt. Col. Jason Miller, who is stationed at Hurlburt Field. “Northwest Florida sits at sea level and the air is relatively dense and the airplane performs well. However, when it gets warmer and the air becomes less dense, the airplane doesn’t perform as well.”
Miller said adjusting to a regional climate presents challenges.
One of the reasons Cannon was chosen for a Special Operations base was because its climate and terrain is similar to Middle East countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Our job is to look at the performance factors that the gunship will have at Clovis and to mitigate that risk by altering our training profiles and our flights,” he said.
Miller said the 16th SOS is taking steps to ensure safe operations of the fleet at Cannon — most notably lowering the plane’s operating weight.
To lighten the aircraft, Miller said, AC-130Hs will carry less fuel, gear and personnel. The AC-130Hs are designed for close air support, armed reconnaissance, interdiction and night search and rescue, according to the Air Force.
Currently, the 16th SOS performs several training exercises during a four- to five-hour sortie. Because the aircraft will carry less fuel, personnel and gear when operating at Cannon, the sorties will be shorter but more frequent.
Miller also said that due to the aircraft’s weight and the air density in Clovis, the AC-130H would not be able to meet required climb gradients dictated by the Federal Aviation Administration and Air Force rule while using instruments. But if the aircraft and crew operate under visual flyer rules, which require the pilot be able to see obstacles to avoid, the required climb rate minimum is lower, he said.
“That’s essentially how we operate when we go to places that have high density altitudes. Some of the places we’ve been to that we operate that way are Nellis Air Force Base and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona,” he said.
He also said training missions for AC-130H crews at Cannon will be moved to cooler times of the day and year.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Bob Worthington, president of the New Mexico Pilots Association, said he is familiar with the C-130s’ predecessor, the AC-47, from his days in the U.S. Army special forces infantry.
“With today’s electronic equipment on board, the AC-130s are much more sophisticated, but they do the same job as the AC-47 did,” he said.
Worthington said elevation, temperature and humidity affect the power and capability of an aircraft. But the AC-130H has flown all over the world for 54 years, he said.
“These planes fly out of Albuquerque all the time, and the elevation of Kirtland Air Force Base is 5,800 feet, so Cannon is nothing compared to that,” he said. Cannon’s elevation is 4,295 feet.
“The elevation and air density will affect the aircraft, but not to the extent of failure during flight or not being able to take off,” Worthington said.
Miller said the move taking place for the 16th SOS has created apprehension within the squadron. He said he is aware of an anonymous letter sent to the Secretary of Defense, outlining safety concerns about the elevation, temperature and air density issues hampering the AC-130Hs’ performance at Cannon.
“The 16th SOS is like a big family,” he said. “With any family move there is always going to be excitement and apprehension. But the squadron is coming up on its 40-year anniversary and we have rich heritage. Moving to Clovis will be part of that heritage and we’re going to do it with the style the squadron deserves.”